AT THE COLISEUM de LUXE, Australia, 2019. Narrated by Bruce Beresford. Directed by Anthony Buckley. Rated G.
This is a significant documentary for those interested in the changing patterns of popular entertainment in Australia, from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. The film is based on a book by collaborators Anthony Buckley and Les Todd, getting the collaboration of many archivists, from theatres, from local councils, from National archives.
The focus is on the building of the Coliseum de Luxe in North Sydney and traces its building, its purposes, changing purposes, a range of developments, its collapse.
The narrative is arranged in various chapters highlighting the activities of each period.
Audiences may be surprised at the popularity of rollerskating at the end of the 19th century, a number of buildings in Sydney and Melbourne devoted to it, reaching its peak at the end of the century. A lot of footage is included, including same-sex couples skating together although regulations forbadde it.
Then comes the transition with moving pictures, a lot of background of the developments during the 1990s in both France and with Edison in the United States, the agents travelling around the world and to Australia, filming various events, the various theatres incorporating film screenings along with live action and vaudeville performances.
There is some background to this, especially in Melbourne, but since the Coliseum is in Sydney, the remainder of the film focuses on the Sydney experience.
The film reminds audiences that there was no Sydney Harbour Bridge until the early 1930s and that North Sydney was reached from central Sydney by ferry. There were comments about the suitability of North Sydney for such an entertainment centre and the population. Interestingly, there are many sequences showing the buildings, the look of the suburbs and streets in the first part of the 20th century.
While there were ups and downs in the history of cinema screenings, the development of sound in cinema, the growing popularity of the movies, the film also has some background of a range of performances, styles and personalities, highlighting the history of various significant individuals and entrepreneurs.
The film also focuses attention on Doris Fitton, a significant figure in Sydney Theatre, her Independent Theatre, financial difficulties and the recommendation that she go to North Sydney and set up her Independent theatre with the Coliseum. The first performance there, French without Tears, took place within weeks of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, 1939.
A great deal of the film highlights Doris Fitton’s efforts, the difficulties, her persevering during the war, the development of the Independent Theatre, with some attention to Sumner Locke Elliot’s Rusty Bugles, rehearsals, political interventions to ban the play, highlighting the somewhat restrictive attitudes towards censorship in those times.
The film moves us through the 1940s and into the 1950s – now seen is very much part of Australia’s history rather than a record of events that live in people’s living memories.
The film is narrated by Bruce Beresford in a straightforward manner, a great deal of facts and figures and information, more authentic because of Bruce Beresford’s career and stature. We realise that there could be many such film about popular and cultural history, not just in Sydney but in the various capitals as well is in country centres.
BPT Films Released November 7th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.